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Drama program saved in last act by local director

After Citrus High cancels the course, Playhouse 19 executive director Judy Poplawski says she will volunteer to teach the classes.

The handful of students and parents came armed with props and ready to persuade.

Representing the Citrus High School drama program, which was cut this year for budgetary reasons, the small group approached School Board members, administrators and anyone who would listen to their emotional plea to save the popular class before a budget hearing Tuesday evening.

One parent, Tara Garcia, even spoke during the meeting urging the board to find some solution.

And that is just what school officials say they have found. Their solution comes in the form of a retired 20-year drama teacher who has volunteered to teach classes to the juniors and seniors who were looking forward to advanced drama classes this year.

That volunteer is Judy Poplawski, executive director of Playhouse 19.

"She's very interested in helping the students and she's very enthusiastic," said Citrus High principal Gary Foltz.

Poplawski has volunteered to teach four classes a day and has refused to even take the supplement that is normally paid to the drama teacher. She has instead asked to have that money put into the drama program. Upperclassmen will have the first shot at the open class spots, but some new students might also be served. She has told Foltz that she will do the job as long as she is needed.

"It's a Band-Aid, but it's a step forward in the direction that we needed," Garcia said Wednesday of the volunteer solution. While she and others who support the drama program say they are glad to see some effort by school officials to fix the problem, they still plan to make a more formal presentation to the board on Tuesday, asking assurances that the program will continue and students will not be penalized.

Foltz said he had little choice but to cancel the program after the previous drama teacher, John Riggs, resigned at the end of the last school year. Foltz was faced with cutting two teaching positions and had to shuffle his existing staff.

State educational leaders are pushing academic achievement through school grades, and superintendent Pete Kelly has made it clear to principals that they will improve their grades by next spring. Foltz said the decision to keep basic subjects the focus had to be made.

"It was a tough decision, but it was a no-brainer," he said. "You've got to have the basics, and the fun stuff comes later. If I'm going to be judged as an educational leader . . . I've got to be on even footing."

But the cancellation of the drama program also shows the irony of the strong academic emphasis. Citrus High graduates and current students who have been involved in the drama program tout it as a way to gain self confidence, an incentive to be in school and excel in a program which teaches them career skills on which some will base their future job searches.

Those are also education focus areas for the school district.

As a freshman, 15-year-old Jonathan Kraljic fell in with a rowdy crowd and his grades slipped toward failure. Then he got interested in drama, raising his grades and leaving some of the bad influence behind.

"We worked as a group. There's a lot of teamwork . . . and if you miss, then you kind of let people down," Kraljic said. "It gives us character. You learn to public speak and you get self confidence. You can go out in front of hundreds of people and not be shy."

Kraljic showed no signs of shyness late Tuesday when he stood before board members with a sign supporting the drama program. "Citrus High drama, yeah," he told several people as they entered the School Board meeting room.

Eighteen-year-old Kyle Stillwell earned an $8,000 scholarship to Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia because of her involvement in the drama program. She plans a major and a career in theater and the performing arts.

"I was heartbroken," Stillwell said. "It is completely unfair to deny these kids the experience I had for four years."

She said she wanted to see that any solution found to the cancellation wouldn't hurt the status of students who belong to the International Thespian Society. Through the local Citrus High thespian group, students compete for scholarships such as the one she earned.

Jason Varkett, 15, said he was devastated when he heard the program would be canceled.

"I've been acting since I was 8 years old. It's like I've been doing this all my life and then it was gone," he said.

As an incoming sophomore, he said, he had been counting on scholarship opportunities available through the thespian organization. Fine arts schools also look at a student's experiences in high school to be sure they have taken four years of drama; ending the program would jeopardize that for some students.

Foltz said he understands that there are questions about how the volunteer program will work, but he believes that any concerns about students losing their chance at admission to a fine arts school or losing scholarship opportunities are unfounded and he will work to be sure there are no such penalties.

He did note, however, that Poplawski will not be available for the after-school activities that go along with drama because she must devote that time to her Playhouse 19 job. Parents may be able to help out to fill some of that gap, he said.

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Where to call for back-to-school information

INVERNESS _ The Citrus County schools have set up a hotline and an automated telephone information service to provide parents and students with detailed back-to-school information. The hotline can be reached by calling 341-4040. The information line also can be accessed through the school district's main office at 726-1931. School district employees will be available to answer questions about bus routes and other aspects of the beginning of the school year, which starts Monday for students. The menu of automated information includes detailed facts about each school in the district including starting and ending times for school, elementary day care information and dates and times for open houses.